Official: W.Va., Emerald Isle Kindred Spirits

Peter Ryan said Ireland and West Virginia have much more in common than many might suspect – and the Emerald Isle native believes they can learn much from one another as both look to rebound economically and create opportunities for their youth.

One challenge common to West Virginia and Ireland is a need to create and sustain jobs, according to Ryan, Ireland’s deputy consul general of economic and public affairs.

He spoke with The Intelligencer during a visit to Wheeling – part of what he termed a “whirlwind tour” of West Virginia as he seeks to build bridges between his country and the United States through outreach to the substantial Irish-American community.

Though Ireland’s unemployment rate sits at about 15 percent, he said that number is on the decline. And with about 40 percent of its population 25 or younger, the country is focused on developing a skilled work force with graduate degrees – something he believes could also help the Mountain State as it tries to stem the tide of young people moving away to seek opportunities elsewhere.

“Our priority is education, education, education. … We believe that is the key to our future prosperity,” Ryan said. “The single biggest reason (companies) give us for coming to Ireland is talent.”

Ryan maintains an office on Park Avenue in New York City. But a major component of his job includes trips such as this one.

Stops during this week’s Mountain State visit – Ryan’s second in about seven months – included Wheeling Jesuit University, West Virginia University and the University of Charleston. He also met with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, paid a visit to the Sisters of St. Joseph congregation in Wheeling and visited Irish-owned companies with operations in the state, including Ardagh’s metal packaging plant at Half Moon Industrial Park in Weirton and Oldcastle, North America’s largest building product supplier, with subsidiaries in Dunbar, W.Va.

“It’s really been a whirlwind tour,” Ryan said. “Very productive, very educational for me, and I hope we’ll be able to establish some avenues of collaboration for West Virginia and Ireland.”

Other items of particular interest to Ryan include West Virginia’s ongoing effort to bring broadband Internet access to rural areas – something Ireland also is trying to do – as well as how the local area is handling development of its abundant natural gas reserves. Ireland is preparing to confront that issue, though Ryan noted hydraulic fracturing has yet to take place in the country.

As far as job creation, Ryan said Ireland has done a good job of capitalizing on tourism opportunities. A series of community-based events packaged as something called “The Gathering” and marketed to welcome people of Irish heritage back to Ireland has done very well, with more than 1 million visitors expected from North America alone, Ryan said.

Ryan also touched on the continued progress toward harmony between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, and the role the United States played in bringing that about. He said youth coming of age in Ireland today know little of the violent strife experienced by the generations which came before them.

“They’re agreeing and they’re arguing on things every day, but they’re doing it through the political route. We recognize that without the U.S. government, we would have never got there,” Ryan said.